Leader-area homeowners have long lamented a perceived subjectivity when it came to new development in the area, and a year-long process to amend that trend looks to be on its way to a resolution.
Representatives from Winter and Company, as well as more than 90 homeowners, builders and developers descended upon the Heights Theatre last Thursday, March 30 as the Colorado based consultants revealed initial recommendations for development in the Heights historic districts following a year chock-full of community meetings and gathering feedback.
Winter and Company’s Strategy Paper provides guidelines ranging from more prescriptive standards to slightly flexible standards in areas where there was not a clear consensus. Consultants compiled recommendations based on a physical study of each historic district as well as various community meetings and a Compatible Design Survey to add predictability to the development process.
Head of the list
Chief among concerns expressed by residents in surveys, according to Winter, was a loss of open space, mature trees and other amenities resulting from buildings that appear out of scale, and thus was one of the major focuses throughout the study. To accommodate such concerns, consultants proposed a set lot coverage scale, floor area ratio and maximum building envelope as the trade.
In the current plan, Winter and Co.’s initial Strategy Paper presents lot coverage ranging from 44 percent lot coverage down to 36 percent.
“Generally, as lot size goes up, the percentage goes down,” Winter said. “It still allows (in some cases) more coverage on a larger lot, but it stays more in proportion this way.”
“With increased hard surfaces, there was a lot of concern about flooding onto neighboring properties, so there’s a secondary benefit,” he added.
Another major key Winter addressed is the implementation of a set floor area ratio, or percentage of building area to the lot size. Consultants considered factors ranging from models presented in the Compatible Design Survey to historic development patterns within each district and what past city commissions have approved in attempts to create a more balanced, uniform development pattern.
“We’ve come up with numbers based on the balancing of those considerations,” Winter said. “It does reduce the potential building size in some of these districts from recent buildings people have complained are out of scale, so that’s part of what we’re proposing at this stage.”
Project Manager Steph McDougal said that while it could create a bit of a struggle in that regard, the numbers created were not done so with any intention of hampering additions.
“Right now, the size of additions is being managed, but nobody has metrics about it in the planning process,” she said. “The point of this is to put the quantitative parameters out there so people know what to expect and they can better plan for a certificate of appropriateness application from the start.”
Finally, consultants proposed what is essentially a tent over a building site that shifts the taller mass of a building into the middle of the lot, keeping it from looming over a neighbor’s property.
“The looming of large-size walls is one of the things we heard complaints and concerns about, so this (maximum building envelope) helps to shape where you can shape your building,” Winter said. “Those tools all work together to help shape the overall size, where the massing occurs and what the overall coverage is,” he added.
“We’ve set those numbers to accommodate houses bigger than were there historically, but they’re still set to be more in scale and in proportion with the things people said were more compatible with their neighborhoods.”
Not always clear
While many of the historic districts provided a clear consensus as to their wishes, some – such as Houston Heights South— did not, and thus consultants had to be a bit more creative in compiling recommendations.
Just because guidelines for such districts may be slightly more ambiguous for now, Winter assured the public every precaution has been taken to maintain integrity.
“Fundamentally these are historic districts, so we look at what the threshold is beyond which a larger building threatens integrity of the historic district,” he said.
Copies of the Strategy Paper are now available online at houstontx.gov/planning/HistoricPres/Design-GuidelinesHeights.html for residents to give their feedback.
Completed Strategy Papers should be sent to Steph.McDougal@houstontx.gov. The comment period will last until April 9, after which consultants will turn the feedback into their first draft.